I’m on a train as I write this…
I’m going back to NYC for some follow-up testing of something we started work on in November but we ran out of time. I’m a big train fan.. The internet is so shitty on this thing that it’s easy to find willing strangers in the cafe car or elsewhere who are happy to sit through some tricks.
Speaking of testing, this post is going to summarize the results of the testing we did on controls a few weeks ago.
What Is The Purpose Of A Control?
This may seem like a stupid question. The purpose of a control is, obviously, to control a card. But that’s not the full answer. Think of it this way… If I said, “What’s the purpose of a force?” You would say, “To force a card on someone.” But that answer is incomplete. The purpose of a force is to force a card on someone in a way that feels like a free selection. We need to understand the entire equation if you’re going to try and test these concepts.
So what’s the purpose of a control? Well, when we began to construct this testing, we realized there are two purposes to a control. This may seem beyond obvious to most of you, but it didn’t really dawn on us immediately that a control is used for two different purposes and we couldn’t test both purposes at the same time.
The two purposes are these:
A control is used to control a card while making it seem like it never moves from a specific location..
A control is used to control a card while making it seem like it’s lost in the deck.
For example, a control that you would use in the Ambitious Card is designed to make them believe their card is in the middle of the deck in the spot they saw you insert it.
But something like a jog-shuffle control is designed to make it seem like the card is in a position unknown to either the magician or the spectator. It could be near the top, bottom, or middle.
Now, I don’t believe the first type of control—the one that is designed to make it seem like a card hasn’t moved from the location it was placed in—really needs to be tested. Is a side-steal better than a pass? It’s kind of a pointless question. Both—when executed flawlessly—should look like almost nothing has happened so you can’t really judge them from a spectator’s perspective, they’d be virtually identical. Whichever one you happen to perform better is the one you should use. And obviously a control that does involve some kind of rearrangement of the deck in any way is going to be worse than one that seemingly doesn’t if your goal is to make it seem like the card couldn’t have moved from the location it was returned to.
But what if your goal is to make it seem like the card is lost in the deck and out of your control? That’s a more interesting question because it’s not as obvious. And the reason it’s not as obvious is because it’s about how it feels to the spectator.
Ask yourself this question. Which card feels lost in the deck? Card A: The deck is on the table and Card A is slid back in the middle and the cards are deck is squared up. Card B: The deck is in the magician’s hands, he takes Card B, puts it in the middle of the deck and overhand shuffles the cards.
As magicians, we know how easy it is to control a card via an overhand shuffle, so I think we’d say Card A feels more lost. It was just placed in the middle and there are no breaks or crimps or anything. Assuming it’s a normal deck, and the deck is really square, then it’s hard to think how the magician would know exactly where the card is.
But what about to a layman? Does a card cleanly going somewhere in the middle feel more or less lost than one being shuffled into the deck? Do they—on some level—understand that a shuffle can be used to control the position of a card as easily as it’s used to mix a deck?
I had no fucking clue! And I had people arguing it both ways with me. This is what made it interesting to test.
We met with 46 people in groups of 4-6 over the course of two days in late November. The section on controls was one of three different things we were testing that day. And then we would have a 15 minute discussion with them. Each group was there for about 45 minutes total.
Deciding how to test the controls was a challenge. With the testing we did on forces (See The Force Awakens and The Force Unleashed) it was easier. We just would perform the actions of the force and then ask them how fair their selection felt on a scale of 1 to 100.
When working with my pre-test test group (these are laymen friends who I’ve explained the purpose of the testing to in order to come up with clear and concise questions to get to the information we’re trying to uncover) I realized it may be hard to come up with a question that elicits the type of response we’re looking for. For example, I couldn’t just ask, “Which return of the card to the deck felt the most fair?” That’s kind of unclear. A selection is active and a spectator can feel the fairness because, in a sense, they’re being manipulated. But returning the card to the deck is mostly a passive activity for a spectator, so they’re not going to have that same sense of fairness or manipulation.
I also couldn’t ask, “Which replacement makes it seem more like the card is lost in the deck?” Because that would always push them towards the control that included a shuffle. They’d answer the question from their perspective, not the magician’s perspective. If you have a red deck where they have returned the card to the middle, and a blue deck where I have shuffled the card back into the deck, the blue card feels more “lost” to them because they have some idea where the red card is, they can’t say for certain where the blue card is. But that doesn’t mean they think the blue card is necessarily out of the magician’s control.
The real question we’re trying to get to is: “With which replacement does it seem the card is truly lost and out of the magician’s control?” That’s what we want to know, but asking it that way probably wasn’t going to work.
So instead we did what we decided not to do when testing forces: We showed people the same trick seven times.
Here’s how we did that but still kept everything on a pretty even playing field.
First, we told them what was going to happen during the trick. So it’s not like the first version would be more impressive due to some element of surprise.
Second, we knew the trick had to be as dull as possible. If it was entertaining in any respect then it’s obviously going to be less so each time we perform it, which would unfairly impact later performances. So this was a completely uninteresting trick even the first time around.
Third, we rearranged the order of the forces each time we presented to a new group.
Fourth, we chose a trick where the impossibility was solely based on how much it seemed the card was out of the magician’s control. In this way we could ask an easy question, “Rate that trick on a scale of 1 to 100 in regards to how impossible it seemed,” and by answering that they were actually giving us the answer to this question: “Rate that trick on a scale of 1 to 100 in regards to how lost and out of the magician’s control the card seemed.”
Here is, basically, what we told each group regarding this section of the testing.
“We work with a broad community of magicians and they hire us to test out different presentations and techniques to get some honest feedback. That’s why you’re here today.”
Pause. First, let me say that I like this because it’s pretty much true. The backers of this site are the “broad community of magicians” and their support is what we use to pay for this testing.
The interesting thing to me is, when we tell the people this, they all just sit there and nod their heads like it’s the most rational thing in the world. And that’s because it is. It makes sense that magicians would try and test certain ideas with laypeople outside of a professional show. That’s completely logical. Yet it came down to me—magic’s biggest screwball; inventor of the Abracadildo—to actually do this. I know people will say, “I don’t need a test-audience. My material is honed every night in front of a real audience, [etc., etc.]” I just don’t buy that. I know how hard it was for us, in our testing, to get people to open up and give honest feedback even when they knew that’s what we brought them in for. So to think you’re getting genuine, honest assessments in a real world situation—either from friends, or loved ones, or people who have paid you to perform—is naive. If your friend reads you his bad poetry, or if your table-side violinist isn’t very good, you probably don’t tell them how much they suck. You probably say, “Hey, how about that. Thanks. Very nice,” and nod to the people around you. I suspect a lot of magicians get this kind of response and mistake it for real feedback. “Did you hear?! He said, ‘How about that!’”
Back to the spiel…
“Today we’re looking at something you probably have given zero thought to, but this is the sort of thing magicians like to mull over and dissect. You’ve probably all picked a card for a card trick, but today we’re going to look at different ways of returning a card to the deck. We’re going to show you the same trick seven times. Don’t worry, it’s a quick trick. You’ll select a card—we’ll do that part just once—then we’ll return the card and lose it in the pack. Then I’ll take the deck behind my back and in an instant I’ll come forward with your card. The only difference will be in how the card is returned to the deck.
“You might wonder why we’re testing this. Think of it this way, if I were to take your card, turn my back, then turn back around and say, ‘I put your card back in the deck,’ you probably wouldn’t be very impressed if I found your card after that. But if I gave you the deck and the card and had you go home and lock yourself in your bathroom, return the card into the deck and shuffle it up, then come back here and then I was able to take the deck behind my back and find your card in an instant, that might be a good trick. Albeit a time consuming one. That’s the sort of thing we’re looking at today. We’re trying to find what procedures feel the most fair, while also being doable in a wide variety of performances.”
So they understood we were interested in looking at different ways of returning a card to the deck, but we implied our main concern was a logistic one
My Secret Hope
I was delighted when it turned out The Cross Cut Force was one of the most deceptive forces. Not that I liked the force all that much going into the testing, it was just surprising to me and funny that the simplest force—and a somewhat maligned one—would end up being one of the strongest.
Similarly, I hoped that we would learn that the Double Undercut is the most deceptive control.
At the beginning of this section we forced a card on one orvour own people who was acting as one of the participants. That person signed the card. That card was used for each of the seven iterations of the trick. So we didn’t have them choose a different card each time, we just used the same one.
The reason we forced a card is because we didn’t always do the actual control. Much like we did when we tested forces, we didn’t want there to be a debate about the skill level of the performer. So when it came to a control that involved even intermediate skill, we would only do the actions a spectator would see assuming the performer had perfect execution of that technique. So, for example, the side-steal; we didn’t actually perform the move we would just slide the card in the deck, and square it in a manner that mimicked the action of a side steal. Then, when the performer put the deck behind his back, he would remove one of a number of duplicates of the signed force card from his back pocket
Here are the controls we tested:
Double Undercut - Card is returned to the deck by the magician and double undercut to the top or bottom. Done for real.
Side Steal or Pass - Card is returned to the deck by the magician, he takes the deck with an overhand grip and the card is on top. The deck is then placed on the table and squared. Action was mimicked, not done for real.
Cull - The spectator returns the card to a spread and the spread is closed with the card being culled to the bottom. The deck is then placed on the table and squared. Action was mimicked.
Jog Shuffle Control - Card is returned to the deck in the course of an overhand shuffle where it controlled to the top of the deck. This was followed by two tabled riffle shuffles. Done for real.
Side-Steal, Card Palmed, Spectator Shuffle - Card is returned to the deck by the magician, he squares up the deck with an overhand grip and the card is palmed. The deck is given to the spectator to shuffle. The card is then returned from palm back onto the deck. Action was mimicked.
Spectator Cuts Card Into Deck - The spectator takes the selection, places it on top of the deck and cuts the card into the deck, cutting as many times as they like. The card is controlled by having a thick card (or short card) on the bottom of the deck.
Steve Bedwell’s Dribble Toss Control followed by a Wash-style Mix - The card is shown on top of the deck. The top half of the deck is swing cut into the left hand, the bottom half of the deck is dribbled onto the table and the card is (apparently) thumbed off the left-hand packet into the dribbling cards. The left-hand’s cards are dropped on top of the pile on the table (the selection is now on top). The cards are then “washed” around the table by the magician and one or more spectators. The selection is shuttled between the hands from under the thumb of one hand to under the thumb of the other while the other cards are swirled around the table.
Other than the last one, which is a control I’ve used for a long time (it’s a good one, track it down), I tried to keep the other ones relatively general so we could compare some broader concepts (i.e., is the magician shuffling stronger or weaker than the card seemingly remaining in the middle, is the spectator cutting stronger than the magician shuffling, is it significantly stronger if the spectator returns the cards, etc.)
After each iteration of the card being lost and found, the participants were asked to rate the effect on a scale of 1 to 100 solely based on how impossible it seemed. And since the strength of the trick was entirely due to how much the spectator believed the card was lost and out of the magician’s control, they were essentially rating the strength of the control
Here were the average ratings from lowest to highest:
Double Undercut - 25
Side Steal - 42
Cull - 47
Jog Shuffle Control - 58
Spectator Cuts with Thick Card - 77
Dribble Toss Control - 84
Side-Steal, Palm, Spectator Shuffle - 86
The three strongest controls all involved the spectator taking some part in the mixing of the deck.
The four strongest controls all involved the deck being mixed
The Double Undercut was the only one that actually scored a 0 with some people. I think some people see through it completely. You place the card into the middle of the deck and then use two cuts to bring that card back to the top. Even if they don’t “see” that happening, it seems many can instinctively feel that the actions could, in some way, allow you to keep track of where the card was.
Culling a card inserted by the spectator into a spread scored slightly higher than sliding the card in yourself and doing a side steal (this is even when the covert actions weren’t actually performed, just the overt ones).
The highest rated control is a theoretical perfect side-steal, followed by a perfectly casual palm, followed by a perfect replacement. I certainly can’t do that. And I’m not sure I’ve seen many other magicians who can reliably do all three invisibly (although I’ve seen some who think they can). The good news is that the control that ranked almost as high is really easy to do (but you need a table). The next highest is even easier to do, but you need to have a short card or thick card in your deck.
It’s stronger to shuffle than not to shuffle when you want to portray a card as “lost” in the deck. This may seem obvious, but I’ve heard many arguments over the years that shuffling will be interpreted as a means for you to control the card. Which, of course, it is, but I don’t think that’s a leap most spectator’s will make.
When we debriefed with the spectators after the testing we would ask why, for example, they would rate the one where the card was just slipped into the middle lower than the one where the deck was shuffled.. “Couldn’t he have moved the card to another position while he was shuffling?” While they admitted that was the case, they seemed to think that was still preferable to him just sliding the card in and pretty much knowing where it was.
The audience will generally expect you to have a little more information than they do. So if they know the general position of the card (because they saw you put it in) that suggests you yourself might know the exact position of the card. So is the card “lost” when you just slide it in the middle? Laymen don’t think in terms of “no breaks,” “no crimps,” “no out-jogged cards,” etc. So to them the difference is between seeing you place the card somewhere and not disturbing anything or seeing you put the card somewhere and jumbling everything up.
The results of the testing suggest laypeople are more impressed that you can find their card after returning it to the deck in a manner that involves some kind of mixing procedure. Ideally one that they take a part in. So that’s going to be my focus in identifying controls to master and include in my repertoire. I think those will prove to be the best controls for my purposes (casual performances).
Here’s my theory. I think it’s almost instinctive for magicians to believe the gold standard for a control is an invisible pass or side-steal. It’s almost as “obvious” as the idea that the classic force is the best force. It would seem like sliding a card in the deck and doing nothing at all would be the most pure way to show that the card is lost somewhere in the middle of the deck.
But, think of it from a spectator’s perspective. Let’s say you have a card selected and signed. You cleanly slide it in the middle of the deck. You don’t manipulate the deck in any way. The card is clearly placed in the middle. But then a second later you unzip your fly and pull the signed card out of your trousers. What does the spectator think? She doesn’t think, “But he didn’t manipulate the cards in any way! He just placed the card in the middle.” Instead she thinks, “I must have missed it. Obviously he did something to get the card out of the deck and I missed it.” Humans know their memories aren’t video cameras. So the fact that you can perform something super cleanly is less consequential than you may think. “I must have blinked or looked away and he did something.” They’re wrong, but it’s an easy excuse to jump to.
Now imagine it the other way. You give them a deck of cards and tell them to pull a card out from the middle, turn it over on top of the deck and sign it, then turn it back over and cut it into the deck while you look away. You have them cut it a few more times while your back is turned so you can have no idea where the card is. You turn around and take the deck back. “So you picked any card you wanted, signed it, and cut it as many times as you wanted into the deck,” you say as you cut the deck as sort of an absent-minded demonstration (really you’re cutting to the thick card). “No one knows where the card is or even what it is other than you. And yet somehow…,” you unzip your fly and remove the card.
With the second version they can’t default to the “I missed something,” excuse. Well they can, but it’s not as satisfying because the card was chosen and lost with the deck in their hands. So what they “missed” would have to be you searching through the cards, finding their signed card, and stealing it out. And they can’t convince themselves they missed that in the same way they can convince themselves that they missed the moment you snuck out the card that you put into the deck.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. When it comes to assessing techniques, we can’t just ask if the method is structurally sound and does it fly past people in the moment, we have to ask, “Is this a technique that can be undermined with an ‘easy answer’?” If yes—even if that easy answer is wrong—then it doesn’t really matter how clever or well executed the technique is, it’s inherently flawed. We need to create an arsenal of techniques with no easy answers. More on this idea to come in…